A diary: In search of the virtue of drawing

Day 1
There, I have made a drawing, and it is a good one. Why is it good? This particular drawing is good because something unexpected happened while I was making it. An idea suddenly suggested itself, and I was able to capture it with a few strokes. This kind of drawing is like a journey, a journey of discovery. Because of that, even if it ends up somewhere that wasn’t even on the map I had in mind when I started, it can still be a success. Of course, just as many drawings of this type end up as failures; in fact, probably more fail than succeed. Still, because this was a drawing of discovery, if, after letting that sudden idea show me the way for a while I had decided that it would lead nowhere promising, I could have just as easily abandoned that course and headed off somewhere else.

Or I could have erased it.

Make no mistake, the possibility of easy erasure is probably the greatest virtue of a pencil drawing. Erasing is at least as pleasurable as drawing in fact. Because, when all is said and done, since other people rarely see the drawing until the drawer has decided it is finished, he is free to reveal only as much of his struggle as he feels appropriate .

[IMAGE #1]

Day 2
Today I made another drawing and it is also good. Perhaps I am being dishonest when I say I “made” this drawing, however. Actually, the point in question is not its making, it is what role I played exactly. Because this drawing is more like a record of a conversation, the result of a back and forth exchange of ideas, of avenues embarked upon and rejected, or bent, twisted, or otherwise modified. The thing about a drawing like this is that if I hadn’t told you, you probably wouldn’t have detected the input of others in it. Whether or not they actually held the drawing instrument is irrelevant; what is important is that I, as an architect, (did I mention yet that I am an architect, and that most of the drawings I do are related to the investigation and practice of architectural ideas?) I assumed the role of notating architectural ideas that were being tossed around and embellished by myself and another person, who is not an architect. He can’t draw, but he knows what his ideas look like when someone else draws them. “No, that’s not what I meant!” or “Yes, that’s it exactly!” This drawing is successful because while drawing it I was able to clarify both what the client envisioned (however feebly) and how I might solidify those visions of his into an architecture that might embody the kind of characteristics I identify with. Put another way, this drawing is a satisfying record of a conversation (did I mention that we were drinking wine? It was a well-chilled Soave, which I provided, partly because it would give me the opportunity to present a bit of myself in a flattering light, to tell my client, “You really should visit the Veneto, everything I love about architecture I found there!”) which was itself satisfying. Through this drawing my client and I discovered that we could, in fact, share ideas productively.

[IMAGE #2]

Day 3
It’s funny how often people who think they cannot draw express admiration for those of us who can. I always express my gratitude for the appreciation, but if I am feeling secure enough I am likely to exclaim, ”If you think this is good drawing, you should look at Piranesi!”. And then I pull the book down from the shelf, pour us some more wine, and embark upon the next chapter in the education of my client. The fact is, while my drawing is pretty good, better in fact than quite a few who make a lot more money than I do doing it, I cannot escape the knowledge that we are living in an age that cannot draw, all of us apes clutching burnt sticks in our clumsy fists for the first time. At the same time, we have so much more to draw than our forebears did, and are familiar with so many possible ways of drawing, who could blame us for taking shortcuts, for wanting to let machines handle the sweaty technique while we sit in our Aeron chairs typing numbers into a dialog box.

But you and I know that it’s not the same. So many drawings grab our interest only because they seem to indicate things that happened inside the mind of the drawer (that’s the second time I’ve avoided calling us “artists”) while drawing. These drawings can act as representations and records of the thinking process, of the gradual solidification of visual or architectonic images over the course of a few minutes or hours. In them we see and feel doubt, and because of that, might feel something like pity for the poor drawer, or at least a pang of human empathy.

A good drawing can remind us that we are human, and can even give us a reason to feel good about being human. That reassurance alone is a noble enough reason to continue to pursue it.

But I know that if there are things that emerge in a drawing that have value because they reveal the creative process, and therefore help us gauge the relative importance certain ideas had to the drawer (third time!) as he formulated his ideas, there are also some very important things that only become apparent when a drawing is finished. Most architects make one or two “finished” drawings or every hundred or so “sketches.” Is it because a sketch is easier? Why would that be? Why don’t we devote more time to finished drawings than to sketches?

I for one often prefer an incomplete, unfinished drawing to a finished one, even when I am responsible for both of them. I’ve already admitted that I’m not as good as Piranesi, but you might be surprised to know that I like his sketches better than his finished drawings, too. I think that might make me some kind of snob, or as we call ourselves today, an “otaku” of drawing. But I think I can put my finger on the essential difference. When I am working on the underdrawing, testing the ideas, erasing and repositioning, the entire world is available, and I can breathe. In this state I am confident that I will not be misunderstood, precisely because I am mumbling in a vague and inarticulate way. But the finished drawing is full of painful decisions. I, who love everyone and everything and would rather die than not invite everyone to my party, have to decide who to leave out. By the time a drawing is “finished”, I have conducted a coldhearted triage of ideas and pictorial elements, and decided which would live and which would die. A finished drawing is like a well planned wedding, while a sketch is like the intoxicated first kiss; commitment and actuality on the one side, hope and indecision on the other. Besides, in a sketch we are almost expected to celebrate our own egos.

A finished drawing is a statement, and let’s face it, taking a position, particularly a strong one, is socially and psychologically risky. Mumbling and indecision, which everyone can relate to, can usually be excused and might even elicit feelings of affection. I think we avoid making finished drawings because it’s difficult to include enough of how we really feel in them, our actual lovable state of indecision and doubt, and because of the risk inherent in statements in general and in taking positions about aesthetic values in particular.

[IMAGE #3]

Day 4
Today I made a drawing and it is good. This drawing is good because it’s so legible. Unlike some of my other drawings, this one had a clear purpose, and working it up was a lot like solving a problem. Did you ever feel that thump! of satisfaction in your solar plexus, that warm little boost, when you solved a particularly challenging math problem in high school very elegantly? That’s what it’s like, this satisfaction at one’s own problem-solving elegance. (I once told my mother, who was a very good painter herself, that I found it satisfying to neatly complete a paint-by-numbers picture of the sort my elementary school classmates and I were very enthusiastic about at the time. She was visibly distressed, disappointed in me even. I couldn’t explain it to her then, but even though I knew it wasn’t “art,” I simply enjoyed solving the puzzle, of predicting how the finished picture would look, and seeing how it actually would come out. “I knew it!” I’d exclaim to myself, “That little patch of #24 makes the baby deer’s eyes look sad!”)

But even when making one of these descriptive drawings, I am confronted with a difficult decision whether to “finish” it with sharp, ruled lines — the kind that seek to leave no trace of the effort and energy of their creation, even though they’re drawn by hand (and let’s face it, when it comes to making these machinelike lines, a machine is usually more convincing than a machinelike hand), or to just go with the freehand feeling. I usually chose freehand. Partly this is because I am lazy and not nearly machinelike enough in my discipline. I truly admire people both past and present who can draw flawlessly. But because I can use a computer as well as if not better than the next guy, I always have the option of a flawless line and flawless shading if I want it. So I obviously choose freehand for other reasons. (Have you ever done what I have, make a rough sketch, reproduce it in sharp, even, flawless lines on the computer, and then apply a “freehand” setting to the lines before printing it out? It’s pretty convincing, enough so to cause me to chuckle a bit darkly when I see it. Then I can barely suppress my urge to break the machine). No, I choose to draw freehand on those occasions because it helps make the description clearer somehow. Maybe my nervous, insecure, irregular line comes across to viewers as impassioned, as full of love, as beguiled and insistent. Every now and then I make a drawing which seems to offer a human connection, and which extends a warm invitation to enter and spend a few idle moments. And as they spend time meeting the drawing, viewers are usually able to absorb what it is I intended to convey, along with a few of my incidental fancies. After publishing some drawings like this, I often get emails from strangers telling me how nice my drawings are. And while I’d love to open a bottle of Soave and pull the Piranesi down off of the shelf for them, these people are too far away. Besides, I wonder if they knew I was planning all along to manipulate them in that way, to make them have that precise response, that eliciting that entire “That-was-a-good-drawing-I-learned-a-lot-from-it” was my explicit purpose when I sat down, clutching the pencil in my sooty fist? If I told them, would that count as part of their education?

When I draw with a purpose, like when I am under a deadline or have a particularly challenging descriptive problem on the board, I can draw steadily for hours on end, day after day, week after week. I draw so much my eyes burn and my head aches, but still I can barely force myself to stop. I miss meals, I lose sleep, I snap at my wife when she interrupts. Because the time I spend drawing is an immersive, all-engrossing time, during which I myself disappear (except when parts of my body begin to hurt), I have an emotional need to continue working, to extend the feeling as long as possible. Drawing intensively makes me hate the limitations of my body, hate my weakening eyes, my trembling hand, hate the need to get up to piss. I hate the paper too, and the pencils and pens for that matter. The only thing I really love about it is the act of drawing.

[IMAGE #4]

Day 5

I made another drawing today, and it is good. I shouldn’t show this to you or to anyone else, because I made this drawing for myself. This drawing contains some of my most irresponsible speculation and doubt. It’s not deep and painful as much as it is juvenile and stupid. It comes from the part of me that never grew up, that sneers and makes fart jokes. Some people would find it offensive — maybe even offensive enough to be used as evidence against me at a hearing to determine my mental stability — while others, maybe even most others, would find it merely inexplicable. Is it a sin to doubt? Is it more of a sin to be cynical, to pretend to stand behind a clear statement when all along one isn’t really sure of its truth or value? Why is it that when I draw ideas seemingly off of the top of my head they usually appear like hidden offspring from deep in my creative womb, offspring that I might prefer to disown? For whatever reason, these drawings usually need to be allowed to gestate over the course of a few days or months, almost as if they are being raised in a nursery. But I know what it is in fact: as soon as I begin to draw, I have begun to forget what it was I saw in my mind’s eye, and so I have to substitute images from somewhere else, and that takes time. So I allow them to gestate. I suppose it’s ok to admit that I have many more drawings in my mind than I do on paper, and that I keep some of the better ones carefully preserved in my mind so that I will not forget them by beginning to draw them.

[IMAGE #5]

Day 6
Drawing is, in so many ways, a taming of vision. Many of my friends and colleagues have told me that drawing is the only way they can visualize their ideas, that they rarely have a picture in their mind before setting pencil to paper. They need to draw it in order to see it. This must be a wonderful feeling, like developing a photograph in a darkroom: there is nothing, and then there is something, and it becomes clearer and clearer. Whereas for me, I usually formulate the image in my mind until it is very vivid, and only then attempt to capture it. Because I am not really good enough at it the result is always just an approximation, a reminder of what I have imagined so vividly, and a reminder that I have forgotten something important as well.

[IMAGE #6]

Day 7
Apes love to draw and paint, there are many fabulous generative computer programs which can make beautifully “humanesque” images, we have made automatons that can paint what they see with brush and ink better than an average child can. Meanwhile in our digital society human hand skill is declining, and many students are capable of only an awkward, simian grip on their writing instruments. Neuroscience has shown us that our brains search for clues of human agency in the environment around us, that one of the first things we do when we see things is to sort them into categories: “a human did this”, or “a human was not involved.” For the most part, despite how much we love and are soothed by nature, and how transcendent we can find the language and sensibility of machines, we hunger for human contact even more. Drawings that communicate the development of ideas in someone’s mind over a period of time, whether original or reproduced, allow us to satisfy this hunger, or at least to take the painful edge off of it. At least they do for me.

[IMAGE #7]